On Viewing “The Da Vinci Code” by Bishop Spong
Separating fact from fantasy is not always easy. This is especially so when the two are skillfully woven together by a very competent novelist named Dan Brown and then projected onto the screen by one of Hollywood’s premier directors, Ron Howard. When this combination of fact and fantasy is then woven around Christianity’s origins and calls into question both its ultimate claim and the continued honesty of Christian leaders, you have the prescription for a cultural phenomenon. That is what “The Da Vinci Code” has become.
To get into the theater for its first showing in New Jersey, I had to walk past a small picket of three Roman Catholic women from Montville, New Jersey, saying their rosaries and carrying a sign that read, “The Da Vinci Code” insults our Lord and his Church. Stop blasphemy.” Presenting my press card, I asked for an interview. They told me they were part of a statewide Catholic effort to oppose the distortions of their faith in “The Da Vinci Code.” When I asked if they had read the book, they answered, “No,” and then said they would not think of reading blasphemy. “How do you then know that it insults your Lord and his Church?” I inquired. “Our church said so,” they responded. I next asked if they had seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” “Oh yes,” they said, “that was wonderful.” Are you aware, I continued, that most biblical scholars think Mel Gibson’s film grossly distorted the New Testament portrait of the crucifixion by blending it with medieval Catholic piety? “Our church told us that it was true,” they intoned. That interview was going nowhere so I departed, recalling the words of an evangelical leader who said, “We live in a Jesus-haunted culture that is biblically illiterate.”
I am neither a fan of detective stories nor of the cinema. My chief experience in viewing this motion picture was boredom. The plot was beyond credibility, the claimed historical basis was badly flawed and the acting, other than that of two non-starring characters, was not spectacular. Despite its chases and violence, I found it slow moving. Had the story not been draped around the central icon of the religious tradition that has informed our civilization, I do not believe it would come close to having the appeal of the “007” series or “Murder She Wrote.”
Keeping the heirs of Jesus concealed for more than 2000 years in order to preserve a theologically correct interpretation of Jesus as the Incarnation of God and the second person of the Holy Trinity, is a bizarre theme, to say the least. The titillating idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that this union produced a daughter, who in turn kept the divine and royal blood lines of Jesus alive for 2000 years, despite a massive ecclesiastical plot to destroy this theological bombshell, makes for good theater but it doesn’t make for good history. First of all, the time between Jesus and today would represent a minimum of 60 generations. Even if the union of Jesus and Magdalene had produced an heir who would presumably be half divine, by the time one follows this line for 10 generations, the “divine blood” would be no more than1/2032nd present in the heir, by the 25th generation, it would only be 1/66,584,576th and by the 60th generation an infinitesimal percentage. The idea that after 60 generations, this blood line resided in a single 21st century woman and not in literally hundreds of thousands of heirs, is patently absurd unless each generation had only a single child. In the final scene of the movie, this lone bearer of the divine blood discovered that she could not walk on water but hoped to do better at turning water into wine. That was amusing but completely uninformed. It assumed that these two biblical images of Jesus were literally true. Most New Testament scholars regard the walking on water story as an application to Jesus of the Jewish praise for the God who can “make a pathway” for Godself “in the deep” and whose “footprints can be seen on the water.” Turning water into wine is a Johannine story that didn’t enter the Christian tradition until the 10th decade. Biblical scholarship no more supports the assumptions of “The DaVinci Code” than it did either “The Passion of the Christ” or Cecil B. DeMille’s, “The Ten Commandments.”
When I asked the picketers how this motion picture insulted Jesus, they responded that it said he was married and had a child. I found in those words the negative definition of women that is the legacy of the patriarchal sexism practiced by the Christian Church through the centuries. Is there something evil about marriage and childbirth? Is marriage a compromise with sin, as the Church fathers have proclaimed? St. Jerome went so far as to argue that the only redeeming feature of marriage was that it produced more virgins! I do not believe that women are the corrupters of “holy men.” Yet that idea lingers on in a church that installed mandatory celibacy and unnatural virginity as pathways to holiness. What those “ideals” produced, however, has been little more than distorted sexuality and massive amounts of debilitating guilt.
To examine the other issues briefly, nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was married. Before one feels too relieved at this news, nowhere in the Bible does it say that he was not married. In fact the only hint we have that any of the disciples were married comes in a story in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Yet Mark, Matthew and Luke all assert that a band of women accompanied Jesus and the disciples all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Under the Jewish social and cultural norms of that time, these women could have been only one of two things: wives or prostitutes! When these women were listed in the biblical texts, Magdalene was always placed first as if she had a claim to status the other women did not possess. Of course, these hints constitute only circumstantial evidence, but they do raise questions and open the door to a way to read the gospels outside the box of literalism.
Other biblical data that might point to a significant relationship between Jesus and Magdalene are that she is portrayed in every gospel as one of the chief mourners at his tomb. In the fourth gospel she is the only mourner and is also depicted as demanding access to the body of Jesus that she believes has been removed from the tomb. For a first century Jewish woman to demand access to the deceased body of a Jewish male would have been off the charts in terms of propriety unless she was the nearest of kin. The name Magdalene also does not appear to be connected with a village called Magdala, since there is no evidence that such a place ever existed. People tell me they have been to the village of Magdala to which I respond, “Yes and it was built just to attract people like you!” Scholars now think Magdalene is related to the word ‘migdal’ and can be translated as large or great. Suppose Mary Magdalene means Mary the Great. Other places in the gospels might be read as suppressed hints of the possibility that Jesus and Magdalene were actually husband and wife. I outlined them in a 1991 book entitled, “Born of a Woman.” These hints do not prove that Jesus and Magdalene were married. They simply suggest that this possibility cannot be ruled out. Dan Brown, by making the marriage of Jesus and Magdalene the theme of his exciting page turner, has now placed that possibility into the public arena. It is not likely to disappear soon.
Brown is incorrect in his suggestion that Constantine and the Council of Nicea in 325 picked the books that would make up the New Testament and proclaimed Jesus to be the divine son of God. The New Testament was pretty much intact by 150 C.E. and the major debate at Nicea was between Arius and Athanasius over how Jesus’ divinity was to be understood. Was he of the same nature of God or of like nature? The idea that books that supported the humanity of Jesus were suppressed at Nicea is simply not so. The apocryphal and Gnostic gospels that the Church rejected were later works, generally more miraculous not less, with a more godlike not a less godlike Jesus, unless one assumes that to be involved significantly with a woman ipso facto makes one less godlike.
What neither Brown’s book nor the motion picture understands is that the debate over whether Jesus was a human life, somehow infused with God’s presence, or a divine life, simply masquerading as a human being, has been ongoing since the dawn of the Christian era. The first gospel, Mark, written in the eighth decade, portrays Jesus as fully human, with no hint of a miraculous birth, who at the time of his baptism was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Fourth Gospel, John, written in the tenth decade, portrays Jesus as the pre-existent Word of God incarnated in a human form, which allowed him to do godlike things. That debate actually turned on how God is to be understood. If God is a supernatural being, dwelling outside the life of this world, who periodically enters human history to split the Red Sea or to answer prayers, to meet God in Jesus is to see Jesus as a divine visitor. However, if God is conceived, as many modern theologians suggest, as the “Ground of Being,” the source of life and love, then Jesus becomes the human vessel through whom the God presence is experienced, enabling people like Paul to say: “God was in Christ.” Through the centuries the church has tended to see Jesus as a divine visitor. In the 21st century the emphasis has been to look at God through the lens of humanity. At the end of the movie version of “The Da Vinci Code,” Tom Hanks raises this question poignantly when he says, “Maybe the human is the divine” or at least maybe the human is the only medium through which men and women can talk about God. I think that is true and because I hold that conviction, I think the only task facing the Christian Church in our day is to enhance the humanity of every person, so that living fully, loving wastefully and daring to be all that they can be, they make visible all that the human word ‘God’ means. The Jesus I serve was understood by John’s gospel to be the one who came that “we might have life abundantly.” The religion of Jesus can do no less. When Hanks says, “As long as there has been one “true” God, there has been killing,” he spoke the truth that plagues religion. When any religious system thinks that its understanding of God is the same thing as God it becomes idolatrous and it kills.